What outdoor imagery does Chekhov use in The Darling, and how does this imagery develop his narrative and themes?
There are two key pieces of outdoors imagery in this story: rain and the garden. The story opens with Olenka looking at the rain clouds absentmindedly, but Kukin is shortly afterward shown complaining about the rain, apoplectic that this will keep customers away from his theater. Here, the rain becomes a vehicle for a type of dynamic between two characters that will dominate the story: Olenka observing a man give his ideas and opinions, which she then absorbs as her own. You can find several examples of rain and clouds playing similar roles.
If rain and clouds represent an external state of action between characters, then the garden at Olenka's house shows her internal state. It is flourishing and full of action when Olenka's life is also flourishing and full of action. But in Olenka's darkest, loneliest moments, the garden is portrayed as grim and desolate. You can explore those specific scenes and how it helps Chekhov develop Olenka's character.
How are Sasha's lines at the end of the story relevant to both the story itself and Chekhov's overall style of storytelling?
Sasha's lines at the end of the story, uttered while he is dreaming, don't have a clear meaning as a conclusion to the story, and this is exactly what makes them so intriguing. There are two major points to keep in mind when analyzing them. The first is Sasha's appearance as another man in Olenka's life who she dedicates everything to, with the difference that, unlike the others, he is child. A mother-son relationship develops between them even though Olenka is not Sasha's mother, and you can explore Sasha's declaration as his own desire to push this mother figure away, and what implication that has for Olenka given her history of abandonment.
The other major point to discuss is how this provides an inconclusive end to the story. James Joyce once said that Chekhov's stories don't have a beginning, middle, and end, instead following the flow of life itself. You can use this ending to analyze the cyclic structure of the narrative and, in turn, talk about how these lines suggest that there is much more to this story about Olenka (and the mini-story about Olenka and Sasha) than "The Darling" covers.
Why does Chekhov use the specific male characters that appear in this story? Compare and contrast them in terms of their relationship with Olenka.
It would be one kind of story if Olenka kept falling for the same kind of man, but instead, Chekhov matches her with a series of men who are totally different from one another. On the one hand, they each represent a different type of person in Russian society: Kukin the artist, Pustolatov the merchant, Smirnin the military man, and Sasha the student. Through these characters—and their concerns and tendencies—Chekhov sketches a picture of Russian society at the time and gives little commentaries on the quality of the people themselves that tend to fill these roles.
Making these characters so different from each other, Chekhov can also develop his themes of identity, love, and fate. Olenka's identity shifts radically in accordance with each of these types of people, and the relationship between her need for love and her own personhood is a fraught one that ultimately delivers the majority of the drama in the story. With a darkly comic touch, Chekhov also shows us that the fate of all these people, no matter how different they are, is ultimately the same. In one way or another, they all vanish from Olenka's life.